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I’ve been wearing glasses since I was eight. My mother noticed that I was squinting while reading, but she decided that it was a ploy to make her buy me eyeglasses. (My parents always treated me like a budding super-villain, which is better than treating kids like fragile collectibles.) And then my teacher pointed out that my scores on class quizzes had slipped—I lived under the constant surveillance of the grade Gestapo—and my mother snapped into action. She brought me to an optometrist, who pronounced me nearsighted and made my first pair of eyeglasses (red plastic, round frames).
Since then I’ve never been without glasses. Never even tried contact lenses (I'm so clumsy I may put out an eye) much less considered laser surgery (Do not offer me the procedure, I am not interested. No I will not get the surgery then continue to wear glasses without prescription lenses—what am I, an actor playing an intelligent person?)
I like eyeglasses— they would be my primary fashion accessory except that they're not accessories, they're necessities. You know that dream where you're giving a report in school and you suddenly become aware of the fact that you're not wearing pants? In my dream I'd have no glasses.
Also, as I told someone yesterday, I like having the option to ignore everybody. I just take off the glasses. As a bonus, everyone looks better.
Granted, ignoring people is a skill in the 21st century. One needs to train (and reject facebook and twitter). Back in the late 20th century, when I was appearing on television (Not my forte: I was not acting hostile in order to seem like a serious interviewer, I WAS hostile), random strangers started calling out my name in public. At first I thought they wanted to say something to me; in time I realized that they were doing it for no particular purpose, it was a reflex action of some sort. If you're on TV you are literally inside people's houses, so they feel like they know you. Hence the recognition from total strangers, many of whom do not get it when you reply, "Thank you, I was trying to remember my full name!"
I learned that if you have a reputation for being sardonic and then you are sardonic towards people, they take it very personally. For some reason they think they will be spared. It must be the same illogic by which people take up smoking or have unprotected sex with the promiscuous—"Yes, there is a high probability of contracting disease, but it won't happen to me."
Corollary: If you have a reputation for being sardonic and then you are not sardonic because you are experimenting with being nice, people are disappointed and pronounce you a fake. Trust me, I have been mistaken for a copy of myself, which sounds very Simulacra and Simulations by Jean Baudrillard (philosopher of The Matrix) but in actual occurrence is just ridiculous.
Sometime in the 90s, I was walking through the mall in my usual 90s attire (cat's eye glasses, black clothes, Doc Martens) when I distinctly heard a female voice say, "Hmp, Jessica Zafra wannabe." As the speaker was a female who was wearing cat's eye glasses, black clothes, and Doc Martens knockoffs, I concluded that she was unwittingly describing herself.
It's the glasses (Note how I just returned to the topic after that detour). They are the foundation of the so-called look, the outfits themselves being quite generic and easily obtainable. The glasses are harder to find, and that's the point. In my first column photo I was wearing glasses bought from an optical shop at the mall—the kind of glasses your dad might wear, with a metal frame and squarish lenses.
Robbie Sunico, one of the owners of Club Dredd and the original manager of the Eraserheads, observed that they were "not me". Usually I am annoyed when people say "That's not you"; I mean, who is in the best position to decide what is "me" if not the actual me? However on this rare occasion I had to agree. I was never very design-oriented; I picked those frames because they were the first ones I saw.
Robbie introduced me to Nella Sarabia, who owns the Sarabia Optical at the UP Shopping Center. Nella's great-grandfather was the first Filipino optometrist. (It is worth noting that our national hero Jose Rizal was an eye doctor, an ophthalmologist. According to my personal Jose Rizal app Ambeth Ocampo, it's a good thing he was a brilliant novelist.) Her family has been in the business for generations, her cousins have the stores in shopping malls.
On my first visit Nella looked at me, then she looked at all the eyeglass frames in the display case and shook her head. She reached under the counter and produced a large plastic bag full of eyeglass frames. Old eyeglass frames, some of them warped with age, others rusty or missing parts. "This is my 'collection'," she said, spreading the old glasses on the counter. "They're vintage glasses from the 50s to the 80s. Which one do you like?"
"Uh. . ." I picked through the junk pile gingerly and wondered how it came to pass that a punk and a hippie were advising me on my "look". Then it occurred to me that some of these were dead people's glasses. Aaaah! What if I put on these old eyeglasses and I saw the things their previous owners saw? Yeah I watched a lot of Twilight Zone.
Nella rummaged through the heap and came up with a pair of black cat's eye glasses, the kind worn by characters in Gary Larson's The Far Side. "I think these would suit you," she said. "I'll clean and restore them and put in your prescription lenses." A couple of days later I tried them on. The punk and the hippie were right: The glasses were me.
Over the years I have looted that dusty plastic bag of retro eyeglass frames and worn them. I've taken all the good ones; there's nothing left but a few pairs that Elton John circa 1975 might have liked. Now I get my vintage frames from thrift shops, antique stores and flea markets.
When I travel I look for eyeglass frames that are unusual and cheap. My trip to Korea last month netted several frames, all of them from markets and sidewalk vendors, none of them worth more than P350 pesos. When the fashionable ask me where I got my eyeglasses I say, "Thrift shops, flea markets, sa tabi-tabi." For some reason they think this is code for "Designer". I do not correct them.